How I Fell In Love With Sarabi

 Film director Taye Balogun began a journey tracing the philosophy, history and fight-for-justice of the most conscious band in Kenya yet.

Sarabi’s music appeals to diverse social classes and they continue to draw attention and inspire whole populations living in abject poverty in Kenya.

Sarabi’s story is captured in a documentary aptly called Music Is Our Weapon, a metaphorical journey of this young vibrant band that believe that music is a weapon of CHANGE.

Finding Fela

I had arrived in Lagos courtesy of the Africa Magic Viewers Choice Awards ceremony, in my capacity as a nominee in a collaborative work of art. It was a tight schedule, practically in an out and one day in between for a gala award event. With stories of Lagos legendary traffic, it seemed a bad idea to even try and explore the city for fear of inconvenience. But Lagos State officials, had something lined up, a trip to the Kalakuta Republic. I really struggled to contain my excitement.

Kalakuta Republic was Fela Kuti’s independent state that operated on a different set of libertine rules and drew the ire of the military government. Fela Anikulapo Kuti was a musical legend, the father of Afrobeat, a revolutionary, a human rights activist, a deeply spiritual entity whose life and music had a profound effect on all those who listened to it. Fela spoke against institutionalized crime, the necessity of carving out an African identity and the disguises of neocolonialism. He spoke of African traditional religion and emphasized on the knowledge of one’s culture as a channel to one’s higher sense of being. He also made some bloody good music.

Whizzing through the congested Lagos streets, the tour guide, a tall large man with a gentle manner, shared highlights of Fela’s life and how his defiance elevated him to heroic status. Fela had taught millions of Nigerians what it meant to stay true to your roots and fight oppression.  He was a revolutionary that the government discredited, frustrated and often brutally beat up.

The Kalakuta republic was not a grand mansion. It was the house he lived in until his death in 1997. Three stories, in a paved and walled compound, a freshly painted house in a neighbourhood dominated by rain streaked ashy grey walls with faded paint. The plaque on the wall read “The Kalakuta Republic Museum, opened in October 2012 by his Excellency Babatunde Raji Fashiola, the Governor of Lagos”. The irony was not lost on me. The same state that had spent a lot of energy trying to destroy this lone rebel had now turned his home into a star attraction for visitors coming to Lagos.

Yeni Kuti, his daughter now acted as the curator and spoke frankly about the complicated man her father was. It was in this house that Fela received some of the most severe beatings of his life. Kalakuta Republic had been raided and burned down twice but like Fela’s spirit, it always rose again.  The house had received a face lift. There were plans to build a restaurant, add a lift and a gift shop where you could pick up a souvenir. Hanging on the walls, paintings, photographs, newspaper clippings all celebrating Fela’s memory. His modest bedroom had a glass wall. A sax, a guitar, a wall of shoes and his personal effects all on display.

17 years since his death, Fela’s spirit still looms large in this place, his political commentary still relevant, his music still as fresh as the first time I heard it. Fela Kuti had talked about the need for Africa to celebrate their own and deliberately sung in pidgin English to reach many. He detested the idea of other Africans suffering in oblivion and used his music as weapon against all forms of oppression.

That pan African clarion call is somewhat muted these days. What we hear is “Africa Rising” commercials sponsored yet another generous multinational.

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Finding Fela




A woman who appeared to be in her 50s, wearing short cropped hair, in an ethnic patterned dress walked up to me at the cocktail party and introduced herself as an official from the Ministry of tourism with a flowery title that escapes me. “Welcome to Lagos, the centre of excellence”. It was my first time in Lagos and Nigeria. Lagos was many things but centre of excellence was certainly not my first impression. Lagos is Africa’s most populous city with an estimated population of 21 million or thereabouts depending on who you ask.

I had heard lots of stereotypes about Lagos. The horrendous traffic, the power black outs, the opportunistic criminals everywhere, loud and aggressive Nigerians but I could only confirm one thing. The weather is a tad bit too humid for those of us from Nairobi who enjoy great weather 12 months a year.

Nigeria is a country of contrasts and contradictions and nothing illustrates it better than Lagos. Nigeria is Africa’s second largest economy on the verge of overtaking South Africa but arriving at the Murtala Muhammed airport in Ikeja felt like walking into a sauna in Lodwar. No functioning air conditioning and filled with the kind of commotion typical of a country bus stand. Outside, the place looked shambolic. All manner of vehicular transport, cars so old, it felt as real as time traveling back to a West African movie set in the seventies. Juxtapose that against an  ambition reclamation of the sea and plans to build an ultra-modern Eko Atlantic city and the splendour that comes with it.  Lagos is a city that is not afraid to show its scars and bears its soul. Nairobi used to be like that, back when it was called ‘the green city in the sun’ and somewhere along the road we lost our soul and left our destiny in the hands of ‘investors’.


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Whatever Happened To The Real Hustlers And Sufferers?

Emmanuel Juma, that droning drawl of a voice behind NTV’s political satire show Bull’s Eye, introduced me to MOHAS, the Movement of Hustlers and Sufferers. I rolled my eyes at first glance. MOHAS talking heads had several issues to protest about but their main beef was the job experience requirement that employers insist on. I could empathize with them on that point solely. For anyone fresh out of school, experience is like some bogey man that stands in the way of earning a secure employment. Hustling historically has been about breaking from tradition and upsetting the status quo in search of new and unexplored opportunity for profit. But the word ‘hustler’ means different things to different people.

What’s in a name you ask? In the 80s, Hustler was the title of a famous American porn magazine published by the super sleazy Larry Flynt. Hustler was considered a lot trashier than the tasteful erotica that graced the up market Playboy pages run by equally sleazy, Hugh Hefner, the original dirty old man.  Playboy passed off as an intellectual read with substance but the main lure was the artistically photographed nude center fold. Hustler on the other hand, made no attempt at standards and bared it all.

The word hustler would evolve to find association with pimps who were glorified by blaxploitation movies that became trendy with the proliferation of video cassette recorders. In movies like Shaft, I encountered pimps and drug dealers who refined the smooth hustle into an art form that seduced audiences. By the late nineties, hustle had graduated to struggling to earn living because no one could survive with one job during the Nyayo era. As a college student my side hustle was as a part time gym instructor and newspaper contributor. It produced barely enough to cover my basic needs with little spare change to afford my own drinks on the weekend. For many of my ilk, the side hustle ended up becoming the main gig. At the heart of the hustle was the ethic of hard work and eventually the experience of unemployment despite valid papers strengthened our resolve to succeed. The consequence of not knowing the right people, kept us on the sidelines hustling until it became a more lucrative fixture through patience and resolve.

During those formative years, suffering was something we learnt to endure with a smile on our faces. Our struggles for survival were captured aptly in a popular song (Shuffering and Shmiling) by Nigerian Afrobeat maestro Fela Kuti and Afrika 70 that had this memorable line, “Every dey, my people, shuffering and shmilling, inside dey bus forty nine sitting, ninety nine standing… shuffering and shmiling”.

Everyone was suffering and smiling because suffering then was the shared African condition caused by systemic oppression. The difference was no one overrated their suffering because no matter how deprived our present conditions, they were people doing far worse that we could ever imagine.

The glorification and entitlement sentiments behind hustling and suffering that seem to rule the airwaves lately stem from a political class that legitimized the ‘our turn to eat’ narrative. The Jubilee government needs to tone down the rhetoric and bluntly tell the country’s young and restless that there are no shortcuts to success. But they probably won’t be listening because showy hustlers’ are hyped daily in mainstream media while good ol’ pride in earning an honest living is dismissed as failure and suffering.

The Tyranny Of Legalese

At the turn of the 20th Century when the natives of Siaya first encountered British civility, many were captivated by their snotty speech mannerisms. The Brits were the ruling authority and those who learnt to mimic their ways prospered in the new colonial system.  Invariably fluency in English became such a status elevator that even illiterate grannies picked up meaningless phrases as proof that they too had read some books. The emphasis was not so much on the content of what was said but rather on how it was said. One had to adopt a manner, head slightly corked, shoulders hunched and a pouted mouth that was barely opened to give the impression that one was speaking through their nose. To this day, you will find village drunks who did not have the benefit of formal schooling insisting on conversing in English that leaves the Caucasian visitor confused. The happy drunk will utter weird statements they imagine are English sounding. Stuff like, “How do you pede pede?” Or in response to the greeting, “How do you do?” the reply becomes ‘fit fot, fit fot’.

Last week on Tuesday the 16th April, the Supreme Court of Kenya published a ruling on the contested general elections that featured such legal verbosity that it might as well have been written in Amharic. I felt very much like an illiterate villager trying to make sense of the ruling. For a man who is not averse to reading long text, 113 pages of legal jargon was an intimidating prospect. I quickly called my lawyer friends for a summary. I understand that the rule of law has to rise above personal feelings but the basis of the judgment was lost in translation.

The joke is that a lawyer would never say anything in a straightforward manner, if they can throw in some Latin for twice the price.



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